How these women are breaking the industry's culture of secrecy around sexual misconduct
People who publicly allege that they were raped or sexual assaulted face a queasy period waiting to see if their disclosures draw backlash, support or an unpredictable mix of the two.
When Mary Moore, who works for advisor billing firm AdvicePay, shared her account with Financial Planning of sexual assault at an industry gathering, she braced herself. “This is how we will break the culture of sexual harassment” in financial services, Moore says in the story. She was relieved to find about 100 people flood her with supportive emails, texts and posts on social media.
Despite the risks and unpredictable outcomes that come from disclosing stories that, even amid the #MeToo movement, seemed destined to remain hidden, women in financial services should publicly air their experiences of sexual abuse and discrimination, says wealth manager Rachel Robasciotti, who co-founded a coalition that aims to end forced arbitration for workplace sexual harassment cases.
“The more something is a secret, the more we tend to engage in victim blaming,” she says. But, “In reality, a sexual assault reflects poorly on the one who assaulted you.”
“It’s very important to share our stories because, as long as we don’t, then the assaults are a secret and secrets are serial sexual harassers’ best friends,” she adds. “It’s what allows them to continue doing what they are doing to other women, other people.”
“If the story was not shared, nothing would change,” Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey conclude in their best-selling book, She Said, about women who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, abuse and rape. “Problems that are not seen cannot be addressed.”
Even more pernicious, the secretive nature of sexual abuse — the unspoken societal agreement that has prevailed for generations that stories must not be told — saddle victims with shame that is illogical and even crippling, Robasciotti adds.
While her San Francisco firm, Robasciotti & Philipson, manages $125 million in client assets, Robasciotti also advocates with public companies on improving gender equity in the workplace and aligning their governance with social justice movements, such as #MeToo. (Robasciotti is set to speak on a panel about preventing sexual harassment in the fintech and wealth management industries at SourceMedia’s In|Vest West conference in San Francisco on Friday.)
One in five women – and one in 71 men – will be raped at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. A third of women in a broad-based survey of white-collar industries by SourceMedia last year reported a high prevalence of sexual misconduct in the wealth management industry.
In breaking her silence, Moore opened lines of communication for other women in financial services to share their own stories of abuse and rape, and perhaps finally bring about change. “It has been incredibly therapeuticand healing to share my story,” she says.
Before deciding to do so, Moore says she had told herself, “If even one person said, ‘Now I’m able to confront this terrible thing that happened,’ that makes it all worth it.”
Of the 100 people who contacted her, Moore says five related similar stories. Two told her they had never been able to share their experiences with anyone else before, she says. One of the two is a woman who works in financial services, but is not yet ready to speak publicly about what happened, Moore says.
Moore’s openness broke down a long-standing wall for her own mother, Carrie Steffensmeier.
The day before Halloween, Steffensmeier, was bustling about her home along the picturesque banks of the Mississippi River, getting ready for a trip, when a text arrived from Moore. The contents devastated her. Moore, 25, told her mother she was going public with the account of what had happened to her.
“I cried all day for my little girl,” Steffensmeier says, breaking into tears over the phone. “I still can’t talk about it without crying.”
She also cried for the little girl she once was nearly 50 years ago, when a male relative sat down next to her one day on the family couch and molested her. The violation resembled the one Moore says she experienced at a post-work party years ago when she awoke to find a man on top of her.
Of hearing her daughter’s account, Steffensmeier says: “I felt sick, angry, sad, vengeful to find out that my daughter had gone through this terrible situation, as I had. There was a part of me who thought, ‘Oh I’ve let her down.’ And then I thought, ‘If only I had shared my story with my kids.’ It literally broke my heart.”
The trigger for Moore’s disclosure was the 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, when Moore was pregnant with her daughter, Ada. After listening to Christine Blasey Ford accuse Kavanaugh of assaulting her in high school, Moore decided that sharing her story publicly was the only way to protect Ada and try to create a better future for her.
Two months ago, she was among 40 people who recounted their experiences of sexual assault, harassment or abuse in a six-part blog series, Do Better, launched by Sonya Dreizler, an investment advisor to planners. Moore posted on Facebook that hers was among the anonymous accounts. She also recounted how she and her then-boyfriend (now husband) Alan Moore, co-founder of the XY Planning Network, were left outraged at an industry conference when another attendee ran his hand up under her shirt.
A decade ago, Robasciotti stopped going to industry events, because of how much gender-based harassment she encountered, she wrote in a blog.
She made an exception two months ago to attend the exclusive Tiburon CEO Summit, where one of the industry’s titans, Ken Fisher of Fisher Investments, made crass comments about women many attendees found offensive. At one point, he likened prospecting for clients to “going up to a woman in a bar and saying, ‘Hey, I want to talk about what’s in your pants,’” according to a recording obtained by CNBC. Despite the presence in the room of some powerful industry CEOs, only one person, Alex Chalekian, founder of the small LPL Financial-affiliated firm Lake Avenue Financial in Pasadena, California, publicized his views on the matter, posting a Twitter video that went viral. Robasciotti and Dreizler backed Chalekian’s account with their own tweets.
Fisher later apologized, saying his remarks had been taken out of context. His firm has since seen $2.7 billion (out of $112 billion) in client asset outflows, CNBC reported.
How people talk is important, Robasciotti says. For starters, they can help create either an environment that gives rise to abuse, or one of safety. And when people see or experience demeaning talk, actual abuse or direct harassment, they need to speak up and publicize it broadly, she adds.
Robasciotti believes survivors must face their discomfort to break the culture of secrecy. Talking about abuse “takes it out of the realm of being secret and into the realm of being a public discourse of conversation,” she says. It “brings awareness such that we can create safer environments.”
Though she waited to tell her kids about her own attack until this year, Moore’s mother, Steffensmeier, says, through therapy, “I finally understood that it wasn’t my fault. There was nothing I could have done to prevent it and he was the one who was wrong. It was such a relief.”
Moore is astonished that her own revelation, undertaken to protect her daughter, ended up liberating her mother. “There aren’t words,” she says.
But, she adds, there is a message in their story for other people who’ve yet to find their voices.
“It’s OK if you haven’t thought about it in five years or 30 years,” Moore says. “You’re not bad because you didn’t do something with it sooner.”